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Philosophers' deaths show

the importance of learning to live I

Alan Saunders

by the knowledge of its eventual termination.

The Book of Dead Philosophers By Simon Critchley Melbourne University Press,

T'S not Simon Critchley's fault that I read his book with sheer, naked envy. This is the book I was going to write. I had it all worked out and it seemed such a good idea; it still does. After all, philosophers, who seek to learn how life is to be lived, must ask how the project of life is shaped

$29.95, 336pp

When the philosopher dies, the philosophy is put to the test. Does it still seem valid? Or does it fade into irrelevance in the face of eternity? While I was dithering, Critchley's book must already have been with his publisher, if not the

printer, so it's unfair of me to regard him as a rival. And I have to say (some gritting of the teeth

here) he has made an excellent job of it. This is a death-haunted history of great thinkers, each looked at in terms of what they said about death or how they died. And how they died! Heraclitus covered in dog dung; Anaxarchus pounded to death by pestles in

a huge mortar. William of Ockham died of the Black Death, Hegel of cholera (though his

widow denied this, what with cholera being such a downmarket kind of infection) and Michel Foucault of AIDS. Avicenna, the great 11th-century Persian philosopher, died as a result

of self-medication administered to relieve the effects of sexual over-indulgence. In 17th-century England, Francis Bacon is said to have died of a

chill after going out in the cold to find out whether stuffing a chicken with snow would preserve the flesh. In the following century, French philosopher Julien Offray de La Mettrie died from eating dubious truffle pate. Some died appropriate deaths. Henry David Thoreau, philosopher of nature, died from bronchitis after counting the rings on tree stumps in the rain. Edith Stein died a very inappropriate death, for there can never be anything appropriate about death in the Holocaust. More happily, perhaps, Hans-Georg Gadamer

was given a clean bill of health at age 102, celebrated with a bowl of soup and a glass of wine,

and died the following day. There is, though, no philosophical death more exemplary than that of Socrates, condemned to death by his fellow Athenians and forced to drink

was summed up in the 16th century by Michel de Montaigne who, sadly, lost the power of speech just before he met his end: "To philosophise is to

learn how to die." To learn how to die, not to speculate about what may lie beyond death, but to look as clearly as you can at your own mortality. This isn't easy, as Critchley remarks. In denial

of death, we try to forget it with the help of pleasures and possessions or abolish it with new age sophistries. Critchley will have none of this. He agrees with Montaigne that to seek to escape

death is to seek to escape ourselves. Remain afraid of death and you are hating yourself. So how are we to regard annihilation?

Critchley seems impressed by an argument of Greek philosopher Epicurus and his Roman follower Lucretius. It works like this: death is non-

existence; non-existence cannot, in the nature of things, be experienced; it is irrational to fear that

which one will not experience; therefore, it is irrational to fear death. It's neat, but I'm not convinced. What one dreads is not experiencing what can't be experienced (which would be silly) but losing the possibility of any experience at all. Perhaps, however, there is a sort of immortality. Seneca (whose death at the command of the Emperor Nero is second only to that of Socrates in

the canon of philosophical martyrdonns)

believed the philosopher was immortal because he lived in the eternal present. "From Aristotle

deadly hemlock for corrupting the youth and failing to honour the gods of the city. Death, Socrates said at his trial, might be a dreamless sleep, or it might be a passage to another place. Either way, it is nothing to be feared. It is, in Critchley's words, "that in relation to which life must be lived". Critchley gets his central idea from Socrates. It Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) licensed copy

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onwards, the most sublime happiness that philosophy promises is the life of con-

templation," Critchley writes. "I know of no other immortality." The problem here, I can't help thinking, is that it seems to imply that you can't die well unless

you're a philosopher. But many people perhaps most are not made for the contemplative life; they discover themselves mostly in activity, in making things or making money, or rearing a family or just getting on with the job at hand. Can't they too know how to die?

Critchley has a philosopher who can help: Hannah Arendt, who died in 1975 after suffering a heart attack while serving after-dinner coffee.

Arendt thought the contemplative life a sort of living death. Contemplation matters to her but what really counts is action in the world. "Philosophical meditations on death are all very well," Critchley says, summarising her views, "but what justice do they bring to the phenomenon of life if they leave no room for the question of birth, the power of beginning."

Critchley thinks this may be a cue for a book on philosophers' births. It will have to be very good to be as fascinating as his book on death. Alan Saunders presents The Philosopher's Zone and By Design on ABC Radio National. Simon Critchley will be a guest at the Sydney Writers Festival.

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BODP Review in The Australian  

A review of Simon Critchley's "The Book of Dead Philosophers" in The Australian

BODP Review in The Australian  

A review of Simon Critchley's "The Book of Dead Philosophers" in The Australian